Thursday, 9 January 2014

How the story came to light ~

Just over ten years ago, I was asked by Angela Howard-Bent of Dashwood Films if I knew of a good story about Germans living in Africa.

At the time, she was co-producing the German-language Rosamunde Pilcher TV series adaptation 'Die Rose von Kerrymore'. Angela was consulting me in my role as an African expert, and explained that she knew of German producers interested in finding a true-life period drama set in Tanzania.

I did indeed have a story.

Back in 1987, I had an extraordinary experience at the Mutheiga Club in Nairobi. I was having tea with my great-aunt Reinhild von Bodenhausen, my great-uncle Tony, and a Tanzanian friend of theirs called Makorongo.

When some Japanese diplomats walked behind Makorongo's chair, he began having convulsions. My aunt and uncle held his hands and reassured him, telling me that there was no medical cause for concern. As soon as the Japanese left the room, Makorongo recovered. Embarrassed, he insisted on explaining why he had lost control.

~ Darsi Ruysenaars with Makorongo ~
~ Darsi Ruysenaars with Makorongo in Kenya ~

When I related his unique story to Angela, she immediately set up a meeting with me to discuss developing it into a screenplay.

I drafted a 1000-word synopsis. Angela encouraged me to start writing the script. She introduced me to her financial controller, production accountant George Marshall (Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, Saving Private Ryan). They gave me a letter of intent.

I blocked out the scenes, reporting back to Angela and George. Angela insisted that two love stories were featured. This was not difficult as I had notorious family history to include as well as writing Makorongo's story. I presented the main characters to them, and then returned to my office to work on the dialogue.

I drew widely on my experience of living in Africa for twelve years, and my knowledge of kinship and marriage studied when I read Anthropology at the University of Durham.

Months were spent on historical research. I met a former witch-doctor in Southern Africa called Abraham Mashiele, who gave me a lot of original source information on traditional ritual and practise.

Ray Goodwin, from the Kenya Police Force, helped me with Swahili phrases, and professional hunter David Lockwood (cousin of Margaret Lockwood) recommended that I read Jomo Kenyatta's memoirs as a source of Swahili sayings and East African culture.

Sadly, George rang me with the devastating news that Angela Howard-Bent had lost her battle with breast cancer. She passed away after valiantly making a documentary of her last few months.

He assured me that Angela would want me to keep working on the story.

Back in London, I went to lunch at The Drapers Company, where I met Dr Bill Frankland. He gave me detailed insights on WWII, when he served as a medical officer in the Far East, becoming a PoW to the Japanese. He agreed to act as historical advisor.

I sent my first draft to George, who helped me refine the scenes. He was not keen on the elephant sequences, and made me cut anything reminiscent of Disney's Jungle Book or The Lion King. He loved the authentic African references, and thought the additional details given by Dr Frankland were amazing.

The American playwright Lisa McGinnis acted as my script editor, tidying up the dialogue.

In the process of gathering material, I visited my great-aunt who had moved to Eastbourne. I recorded an interview with her on DVD, relating the true story for my records.

Several drafts later, after further historical research, I showed it to my friend, Nick Barton (CEO, Harbour Pictures) for his feedback.

"I think the story is really extraordinary, and you have done extremely well with the script. It's a compelling read."

Nick was so inspired, he listed casting suggestions and possible directors.

By this time, George Marshall and I had registered Witness Films Ltd in the UK for the purpose of optioning the script myself while it was in development.

Nick Barton suggested approaching Will Smith's production company, Overbrook, and gave a copy to Will's creative director when she was visiting the U.K. Nick's friends in the Groucho Club all wanted to read it when Nick insisted it was that good.

In August 2013, George wrote explaining that he needed to retire. Meanwhile I handed my script to a British script editor, who did some research and contributed a fascinating historical aspect, re-titling the screenplay.

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